The Wellcome Library, by Sara Zo
By Helena, on 26 January 2017
Editor’s Note: In our first week of the Publishing MA, we visited the Wellcome Library in the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road, to explore their curated collection with the guidance of Anna Faherty, the course leader for the MA in Publishing at Kingston University. Members of our course wrote blog posts contemplating the experience, and Anna chose this, written by Sara Zo, as the winner.
‘We shall never reach the bottom of the casket.’
Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty had a passion for collecting miniaturised versions of just about everything he encountered: antiques, landscapes, animals, poetry, art work. He curated these objects by commissioning curio boxes, spaces which not only acted as a means of storage, but were also truly exquisite pieces of art in the way they were intricately designed to reveal the curios hidden inside.
Like Emperor Qianlong, the founder of the Wellcome Trust, Sir Henry Wellcome also had an insatiable appetite for acquiring objects. His collection contains a wide array of items relating to the strange meeting point between medicine, art and culture. And like the curio boxes which surpassed functional requirements, theWellcome Collection has become ‘a free destination for the incurably curious’ in housing Sir Henry Wellcome’s curios.
When we think of interior spaces like the bookshop, the library and reading spaces, we tend to only focus on them as locked spaces in how well the design fulfils the practical requirements of us as readers and purchasers of books. Where is the till? Will the books be sorted by author in alphabetical order?
Where are the available seating areas?
However, the interior spaces we enjoy the most are always designed with more in mind, simultaneously opening our mind, and none do this as well in this as the Wellcome Collection. Here, the Wellcome Shop, the Wellcome Library and the Reading Room become intimate spaces that consist of artwork, books and objects; all collectively encouraging us to ‘LOOK. TOUCH. READ. COLLECT. TALK. SHARE.’
The Reading Room especially is an area where boundaries between environment and inhabitant have been skilfully redefined because of the six words above: visitors can cease to be passive spectators and go on to interact with the cultural space given. As well as art, there are medical instruments and artefacts on display for visitors to consider. Books have bookmarks with messages from the previous reader, and plenty more bookmarks around with the explicit Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland-esque instruction: ‘LEAVE IN A BOOK/SHARE COMMENT’. Children are not left out; there are books, games and activities for them too. Many copies of Reading Room Companion (an encyclopaedia of items within the space) are also left across tables, chairs, and even on beanbags piled up on the stairs. Comfortable zones for reading and talking.
There is no Dewey Decimal system imposed on the curious visitor fingering through the volumes contained here. Books are categorised by broad themes: alchemy, travel, body, breath, face, pain, mind, faith and lives. Each section contains a diverse collection of books related to the themes, open to interpretation and wonder. For instance, in Breath, someone can find a non-fiction book about smoking next to a novel about a sea voyage.Within the Face area, there is a vanity table where a person is free to possibly either examine their face in the mirror or use the table to carry out work.
Though the room is a finite space, it has been well curated to ensure there is a limitless dimension to the curiosity it inspires.
Having achieved valorization of the contents by valorization of the container, Jean-Pierre Richard makes the following penetrating comment: “We shall never reach the bottom of the casket.” The infinite quality of the intimate dimension could not be better expressed.
The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard